In Triple Package, Do Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld Actually Believe What They’re Saying?

"Tiger Mom" and her husband have a new book that attempts to define who is successful and why. It appears to be as problematic as the last.

amy-chua-facebook-940x540Amy Chua is the self-proclaimed “Tiger Mom” who came into the collective consciousness in 2011 when the Wall Street Journal published an excerpt of her book The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother under the headline “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.”

As you read her work, Chua blasts holes into her own arguments, one minute decrying stereotyping and the next relying heavily on them to make her points. Within the first line of the piece Chua concedes (although I don’t think this was her intention) that the image of “successful kids” of Chinese parents is rooted in stereotype. She goes on to clean up the mess she’s created in using broad terms with the following:

“I’m using the term ‘Chinese mother’ loosely. I know some Korean, Indian, Jamaican, Irish and Ghanaian parents who qualify too. Conversely, I know some mothers of Chinese heritage, almost always born in the West, who are not Chinese mothers, by choice or otherwise. I’m also using the term ‘Western parents’ loosely. Western parents come in all varieties.”

She then goes on to retract her concession, and pivots again to acknowledge that we are “squeamish” about cultural stereotyping.

Recently, in a piece for the New York Times titled “What Defines Success?” Chua and her husband, Jed Rubenfeld, pen an essay in advance of their new book, The Triple Package, that is beyond nauseating.

It’s also totally debatable as to whether Chua and Rubenfeld themselves believe their own thesis, given all the diversions they make from their points once they’ve been made. Chua, whose husband is Jewish, clearly credits her cultural heritage to her success, and whatever winnings her daughters may have to their drawings in the cultural lottery.

It’s an interesting way of looking at things, but one she is most certainly entitled to. However, as Chua and her husband try to extrapolate their theories to the broader picture, its easy to see how things don’t quite shake out.

“It may be taboo to say it, but certain ethnic, religious and national-origin groups are doing strikingly better than Americans overall,” they write.

For anyone with eyes and good sense, this is less taboo and more factual. What makes people uncomfortable with disparity isn’t so much that it exists, but the how and why of it all. Chua and Rubenfeld attribute it to culture — a Social Darwinian idea that some cultures are better at life than others that reads like an adaptation of Animal Farm.

The couple rattles off the socioeconomic successes of Indian Americans, Jewish Americans, the Chinese and Mormons. They reference the successes of “some black and Hispanic groups in America that far outperform some white and Asian groups” including “immigrants from many West Indian and African countries, such as Jamaica, Ghana and Haiti.”

These things, they say, help to dispel the myth of the model minority, a stereotype that the couple says is rooted around the idea of “ innate, biological differences.”

But that isn’t entirely true.

Many stereotypes are culturally based. Black Americans are lazy. Mexican immigrants have gang-affiliations. The perception is that there is a cultural, homespun deficit, not necessarily a biological one. Through their very essay, the couple only validates the perception that certain minority groups are culturally better.

And to be sure, there are achievement and income gaps that exist across cultural and ethnic groups in this country; individual bias and structural discrimination have made it hard for many groups to play catch up. The pervasive attitude that even those without boots can and should pull themselves up by their bootstraps fuels the unspoken belief that those on the lower end of the totem pole don’t care enough to climb up, a sign of a moral and/or ethical deficiency in their culture.

“There are cultural forces at work,” they say. Here, the authors briefly concede to the existence of systemic oppression and racism (I’d include xenophobia, too) in the United States – a cultural norm of its own.  After spending some time talking about the history of African Americans, the pair hit a new brick wall; Chua and Rubenfeld have to explain away the existence of black success. So predictably, they default back to the bootstraps and individual responsibility argument. To emphasize their point, there is an attribution from rapper/entrepreneur Sean “Diddy” Combs, of all people.

Another stereotype, languishing in our midst.

The couple also references the triumphs of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and follows to say that “the point of [the] example is not, ‘See, it’s easy to climb out of poverty in America.’” And it shouldn’t be. In Justice Sotomayor’s own work, she has worked tirelessly to level the playing field, knowing that exceptionalism should not be a normative.

“The good news,” they pivot, “is that it’s not some magic gene generating these groups’ disproportionate success.”

No, there is always what they call “impulse control” and an “individual superiority complex” that one needs to override inequality. “It’s the pride a person takes in his own strength of will.” Change your attitude. Work harder, think better of yourself, and obviously others will, too. </sarcasm>

Chua seems conflicted about her own success, and it seems to bleed into her work. Like many, she offers an “I did it, so why can’t you?” argument that only helps inequality to persist for others. As she continues to offer her thoughts to the public on issues of race, culture and success, she’d be better suited to just tell her own story, rather than try to tell everyone else’s.

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